- John Gaines
Author Gideon Defoe has established a successful micro-franchise with his comedic novels about the misadventures of the dim-witted yet lovable Pirate Captain, beginning with The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists and continuing throughout the 2000s and 2010s to the latest installment, The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics. Defoe’s ridiculous tales are dominated by the presence of the Pirate Captain, a man who never found a boast too ridiculous to make, a ham too large to eat, or an amount of money too large to spend. It is this last attribute that forces him and his bizarre crew into their latest adventure. Deeply in debt, they decide to take some wealthy intellectuals on an “authentic” pirate adventure in hopes of making some quick money. Unfortunately for them, those intellectuals turn out to be Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Godwin, and a variety of bizarre, hilarious events ensue.
Although the title refers to “pirates” in plural, there’s only one pirate who gets a great deal of characterization in this novel, and that’s the Pirate Captain. Luckily, he is an amazing comedic creation, a potent combination of incredible bluster, bottomless zeal for inane “adventures,” and complete and utter ignorance of the world around him. From his attempts to make Mary Godwin love him by creating a novel about a human-seaweed mutant to his inability to distinguish between the concepts of “red” and “black” ink in finance, the Captain is a veritable goldmine of comedic punch lines and humor of the absurd.
The character portrayals of Shelley and Byron are also quite funny, especially for people with a background in literature. Many of the conversations they have with the Pirate Captain reference their philosophical ideals and literary works. Unfortunately, the other pirates in the Pirate Captain’s crew do not get the same level of character development or detail in their portrayals. They are typically identified by a single character trait, i.e. “the pirate with gout” or “the pirate who wore green,” and mainly serve to comment on what the Pirate Captain is doing rather than make decisions for themselves.
Defoe’s writing method is very distinctive and is patterned around a dry, witty analysis of his characters with interesting scientific facts that are listed in the margins. A reader can learn a surprising amount of fascinating information just by reading the facts listed on each page. Defoe enjoys using deliberate anachronisms in his writing that may remind readers of Monty Python’s comedic style. A particularly amusing example of this is the Pirate Captain’s obsession with referring to vampires as “draculas,” despite the fact that the novel takes place long before Bram Stoker’s literary career. Some of Defoe’s more subtle use of anachronisms may not be apparent to readers who aren’t interested in history, but for those who are, this book is an enjoyable treat.
This series of novels was adapted into a feature film in 2012 with the release of the animated movie, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which adapted Defoe’s first book with these characters. The film omits some of the humor related to history and anthropology for the sake of streamlining the narrative to the screen, but it can serve as a good introduction to these characters. It features witty voice acting and excellent animation from Aardman, the makers of the Wallace and Gromit shorts. Defoe’s novels are built more around comedic blundering and wisecracks than they are around a massive, ongoing story, so a new reader can start the series from any book and not feel that he’s missed important plot points or had his experience ruined with spoilers. For anyone who loves pirates and absurdist comedy, discovering Defoe’s novels is like finding buried treasure.